Is Tamil Politics Sumanthiran-Centric?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Canada is among the nations where the Tamil Diaspora has a strong and vocal presence. On the Sri Lankan ethnic issue, local society and polity, starting with the Government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, treat the Tamils as more than a domestic electoral constituency. Independent of the understanding and interpretations available elsewhere, their concern for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause is genuine and serious.

Hence, the recent episode in which a section of the Tamil Diaspora group heckling visiting Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran at a local event in Ottawa should have both amused and upset the local supporters of the said Tamil cause. It is not as if the government there would not have known about these differences, but they may not have possibly expected such a public demonstration of those differences in what still remains an alien land.

Independent of issues involved, after ageing Sampanthan, Sumanthiran, even if as his pointsman, has become the international face of the moderate Tamil cause, particularly of the TNA, which is by far the electorally-acknowledged leader of the pack back home. If the groups that disrupted Samanthiran’s talk thought their protest would send out a clear message to the host-government and community that Sumanthiran’s was not the only voice of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, that’s only a part of it.

Any government in Canada’s place would have also concluded that even a decade-plus after the LTTE’s annihilation in Sri Lanka; the Tamils are incapable of staying together for a common cause. That message would have been transmitted to western embassies in Colombo that would have also watched the social Media videos of the disrupted non-event: So also to the government in Colombo, along with hard-line sections of the majority/majoritarian Sinhala polity and community.

Naturally, Sinhala hard-line sections would be celebrating the disruptive behaviour of the Tamil Diaspora, which in turn, they hope would disturb the political and electoral processes back home. Coupled with the constant Diaspora heckling at the ruling Rajapaksas especially whenever and wherever they visit, the message from Ottawa is that at least a vociferous and vocal section of the Tamil community, both nearer and farther home, is disruptive in nature, without being capable of sustaining a dialogue and achieving acceptable results on issues pertaining to the legitimate aspirations of the community.

Where from here?

Is this the message that the Tamil community want to send out to the West that is on their side – whatever the reasons and motive? If so, where from here? If not, what next? The divisions within the Tamil polity has become political, ideological and personal, both nearer home and afar.

All of it has emanated as much from inherited compulsions that a catastrophic war has failed to erase from within the community. That is one more of Prabhakaran’s failures – not being able to end deep-seated casteism despite his best and silent efforts.

But that is not the only one issue governing the current predicament of the Tamil community and polity, not necessarily in that order. There are ideological issues. From among the Tamil polity, Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam is uncompromising, making a negotiated settlement involving him impossible. There are the likes of Justice C. V. Wigneswaran, a hardcore politician of less than a decade vintage, who is not clear about his goals, personal and politico-social. Hence he is not being taken seriously by the voters and nations alike.

The TNA qualified to become the moderate voice of a majority of the Tamils, mostly by default. But that status has stuck to the party. But then, the TNA too suffers from illusions of ‘politics of a kind’. There added problem is that the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) leader of the Alliance has long since concluded that they alone are the moral guardians of moderate politics in and for the community.

The ITAK leaders still live in the distant past of party founder, the late S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, popularly known as ‘Thanthai’ Selva in what still essentially is a patriarchal society and Amirthan ‘annai’, referring to the LTTE-slain Amithalingam as an elder brother. To them, every other section of the Tamil polity is tainted by hands soaked in blood, from their respective militant past – before the LTTE devoured them with their leaders.

Both want each other for winning Elections, but detest and distrust one another, otherwise. At times, this mutual distrust within the Tamil polity and society is worse than their collective and separate distrust of the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala polity and society.

Textbook templates

It is anybody’s guess, why and how the West wants to get involved, again and again. Or, is their political compulsions, centred on China, that has forced them to have a toehold, and yet not wanting to have a foothold? Is it because of this that they are focussing more on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) kind of issues, which alone they understand and manage and manipulate from a distance, without getting their own hands dirty by digging deeper?

Norway to a greater extent and Japan to a lesser extent faced the humiliation in the LTTE’s time. If neighbouring India, with centuries of cultural linkages and perceived socio-political understanding ended up being hated by all sides in Sri Lanka to date, how do western nations with their textbook-like template models for conflict resolution and transitional justice hope to succeed?

The pity is that even decades after watching Sri Lanka from the pavilion of their embassies in Colombo, the West does not seem to have known Sri Lanka enough. Their system of reducing every issue to parts that they could understand and manage does not encourage any study of any other kind. Thankfully, their boots are not on Sri Lankan soil, for another Afghanistan to happen, but politically, it is precisely so.

Personalized politics

The Tamils are fighting within themselves and are fighting through the West when it comes to addressing domestic issues with such other domestic constituencies of the Sinhalese and fellow-minority Muslims, if not the Upcountry Tamils, whom they have either kept out or taken for granted. The fact is that they do not use the West to address core concerns of long-standing and whose effects will be felt in the distant future. A political solution.

Instead, they are now stuck with the West’s ‘war-crimes probe’ which refuses to move an inch. It is also an issue which would keep away even genuine, Tamil-supportive constituency within the majority Sinhala polity and society. The likes of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could not do anything substantial, other than making Sumanthiran slug it out in preparing the so-called steering committee report for a new constitution through four years, owes it here.

Not that the anti-Sumanthiran groups within the TNA and outside, both within the country and outside, have anything substantial and negotiable for western Government take up with Colombo. Worse still, the Tamil community debate on their future course are getting increasingly personalised, increasingly ‘Sumanthiran-centric’. Rivals are demonstrating it, day in and day out, inside the country and outside.

It is thus no more the kind of multi-leader, multi-personality politics of the earlier kind. Instead, it is increasingly becoming one-person centric, that too someone Sumanthiran’s critics say is not one of them, not a popular leader either. If so, why are they so peeved at the increasing international interest and media attention (of either kind) that he has been attracting – as much because of them as himself.

United Sri Lanka…

Critics cannot accuse Sumanthiran for saying or doing things that the TNA as an alliance and ITAK as a stand-alone party have not identified with. Going beyond SJV’s Vaddukkottai resolution for a ‘separate Tamil homeland’ and the LTTE’s resolve to win it through war and terrorism, the TNA has since inception identified only with the former’s moderate politics in the Gandhian way.

Post-war, almost from day one, the TNA has also maintained that they were for a negotiated settlement within a united Sri Lanka. In doing so, they also clearly indicated that separatism was not on their agenda. Notwithstanding the immediacy of post-war electoral politics that joined the ITAK to form the TNA, there seemed to have been unacknowledged acceptance of the leader’s agenda and methods. It is even more within the ITAK, where none has for long talked of separatism, or even a confederated structure, as Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam alone has been maintaining for all along. The ITAK-TNA position has been one for a ‘true federal structure’ within a united Sri Lanka.

That there is no textbook grammar for creating a federal structure has led to multiple interpretation, all of them centred on and ending in genuine power-devolution at every level and in every which way. It is another issue if the ITAK-TNA combo is ready to further devolve equitable powers on the local government bodies. Apart from not wanting to give what they have not yet got, there is anxiety that any attempt to address the issue early on could lead to their surrendering their demands in favour of a modified district-level devolution, if it was any, in the era before the 13th Amendment.

By giving up the district-level devolution and yet not accepting the India-facilitated 13-A on a later day after getting them on paper, the Tamils have only lost even what they might have had either way. Today, they want to start on a clean state, or so it seems. That is, to start from the scratch, where divided opinions and ideas keep emanating from the Tamil camp even as the Sri Lankan State and the decisive Sinhala polity continuing to maintain stoic silence.

In these circumstances, what Sumanthiran has been canvassing for is only what his party and alliance have always sought. None of it is his original for them to blame him one way or the other. But his critics, who do not seem to have read their party’s position to remember it, have projected it all as Sumanthiran’s thoughts.

It should still be said: Sampanthan united the Tamil polity, or as much as is possible. The very mention of Sumanthiran’s name divides. It has nothing to do with his politics, but with indecent fears of his detractors that he might end up upstaging them all, given also his relatively younger age, and greater acceptance in the international community.

Sumanthiran can be happy. On this one issue, centred on him, others in the Tamil polity have come together – not as much even against the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala polity as claimed. If he wants to have some fun at their expense, he only has to lie low, not even quit politics, and then they would go back to fighting among themselves, the Diaspora included.

-N. Sathiya Moorthy is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. He can be contacted on



Sumanthiran has become the international face of the moderate Tamil cause, particularly of the TNA, which is by far the electorally-acknowledged leader of the pack back home

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